Riparian areas as valuable to us as to the ancients

Tensleep Preserve

The Alcove at The Nature Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve in Wyoming. Photo courtesy TNC

Published Sept. 6, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Riparian areas: Ancient sacred sites still valuable today.”

2014 Update: For more information about The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, visit

By Barb Gorges

Nearly 30 years after applying for a “wider opportunity” to spend a week at Girl Scout National Center West, I finally made it to the camp, now known as The Nature Conservancy’s Tensleep Preserve, located near Ten Sleep on the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains.

The occasion of my visit was the last hurrah of the Wyoming Riparian Association, of which my husband Mark was a member.

It’s not too often a group’s mission is accomplished and it formally disbands.

The WRA was formed in 1989 at the request of Gov. Mike Sullivan in order that disparate groups from agriculture and environment, and resource professionals from agencies, would begin discussing what they could agree upon regarding the future of riparian areas.

It was a forerunner of Cooperative Resource Management, now a commonly used strategy for resolving natural resource conflicts.

A riparian area is a type of wetland that is the transition zone between water (rivers, streams, lakes and ponds), and dry upland. It is productive for both wildlife and livestock.

Riparian areas account for only one to two percent of Wyoming’s acreage, but if a birder only visited those areas, he’d eventually see one-third of the 398 bird species listed in Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s bird checklist.

Birds whose habitats are listed as wetlands–the actual marshes, lakes and rivers–account for almost another third.

Tensleep Preserve harbors a few wet spots deep in canyons. Naturalist James “Tray” Davis took us to Canyon Creek. We first dropped down into the canyon the depth of a mere flight of stairs, but switched immediately from aridity to humidity.

A huge bush of Rocky Mountain bee plant was humming with butterflies and hummingbird moths. Boxelder and wild clematis formed a screen hiding cliffs rising increasingly higher as we hiked upstream.

We waded the creek several times to get to our destination, the Alcove. Its sandstone overhang had the acoustics of a band shell. Imagine carrying on a conversation with someone 50 yards away as if they were next to you–provided you faced the rock when talking.

The Alcove is considered to have been sacred to Native Americans for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

All along the wall we saw pictographs which experts have recently decided depict images of ancient tobacco seeds, part of a cultural tobacco reverence, perhaps marking growing plots.

Before you spend too much energy considering what archeologists will think of our tobacco advertisements in two thousand years, consider this: a thousand years in the past, a riparian area like the Alcove was receiving special treatment.

The day before, our family unexpectedly visited another ancient riparian landmark, the Medicine Lodge State Archeological Site outside Hyattville.

We were on the way to see the dinosaur tracks between Hyattville and Shell, driving the Red Gulch/Alkali Backcountry Byway through desert as dry as the name of the road.

Around a corner we encountered an old pickup pulling a travel trailer, but it was stalled broadside to the deserted road where the driver had attempted to turn around. He said he and his wife were supposed to meet friends at a campground when their engine apparently vaporlocked on the hot, steep, treeless hill.

We determined their destination was not in the forest up ahead, but 20 miles back at the archeological site. So we took the wife down and found their friends.

Three of the men quickly organized a rescue party while the women stayed behind on the banks of Medicine Lodge Creek, in the shade of cottonwoods, not far from pictographs painted by ancients who had made this riparian area another of their sacred places.

On the way home we drove the Hazelton Road, a primitive scrape along the spine of the southern Big Horns. Our experienced eyes could visualize the treachery that would probably result with snow or rain, even though the nearly treeless slopes were now too dry.

Every other fence post seemed to sport a hawk and horned larks blew with dust across the road.

The only signs of humans were a few travel trailers and shacks off in the distance now and then, marking summer sheep or cow camps.

The only people we saw were rounding up and loading their livestock–early no doubt, due to the drought. Water is everything.

During its 12-year life, the WRA provided funds for ranchers to improve their riparian areas and for workshops examining riparian values and best management practices.

And now the WRA can be laid to rest because the ancient message has been relearned. The former members will continue to retell it so it will spread like water on parched earth: our green oases are most valuable. They are life.